When It Comes To Major Massachusetts Busts, Illegal Vapes Are The New Weed

How the Bay State managed to create a new illicit market after cannabis became legal

There’s been yet another major drug bust in the Bay State, and this one is a multilateral doozy. The Office of Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell wrote in a media release this week:

Two men have been arraigned in connection with their roles in a tax evasion scheme related to the large-scale importation and distribution of electronic nicotine delivery system (ENDS) products, Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell announced today. The latest charges are part of a major ongoing state and federal investigation into a multi-level organization trafficking unregulated marijuana, untaxed black-market tobacco and illegal flavored vaping products out of Woburn and into stores across Massachusetts, New York and New Hampshire.

As the AG noted, there was plenty of weed in the mix. Plus some really ugly drugs. One of the accused was even ”previously arrested and charged with Trafficking in Marijuana and Tax Evasion in connection with this investigation in June 2021,” and “in August 2022 … was arraigned on additional charges of Trafficking in Marijuana, Possession of Fentanyl with Intent to Distribute, Possession of THC with Intent to Distribute, Possession of Marijuana with Intent to Distribute, Distribution of THC and Distribution of Marijuana.”

But while the cannabis side hustle didn’t help matters, the charges announced this week aren’t focused on green dealing, but rather on “the distribution of ENDS products, commonly known as vapes or e-cigarettes, to retail vape and smoke shops throughout Massachusetts without paying the applicable 75% sales tax.”

Flavored tobacco and ENDS products have been banned for sale in Mass since 2020, a measure intended to “discourage youth e-cigarette use” that included the banning of menthol cigarettes. In the nearly three years since, there have been several small and large-scale busts involving colorful liquids and cartridges and Newports smuggled in from places like New Hampshire as well. The aforementioned suspects operated out of a Woburn-based wholesale and retail business called Sam’s International; its website isn’t currently online, but snapshots from the Internet Archive Wayback Machine show that it was marketed as a seller of vapes and basically other goods you can find at a head shop or even most gas stations these days.

There’s a wild irony in Massachusetts creating a new illicit market where one didn’t exist just as recreational cannabis shops started opening up everywhere. The stupidity has not gone unnoticed; the case in which new charges were announced this week has already been used as a political football by groups as far-ranging as the ACLU and Americans For Tax Reform, which for various reasons—many of which are reflected in the Woburn arrests—oppose the flavor ban.

Check for yourself—every month or so, there’s a new headline about some bodega or rogue independent distributor getting pinched for slinging neon nicotine juice in Mass. Cannabis and THC products are often caught in the dragnet, as happened this time, but from the looks of things it seems that law enforcement here and their associates—the Woburn investigation drew resources from Assistant Attorney General Joseph R. Posner of AG Campbell’s White Collar and Public Integrity Division and the AG’s Digital Evidence Lab, the Criminal Investigations Bureau of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, Massachusetts State Police (MSP), the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, the New Hampshire State Police, the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office, the New York State Police, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Woburn Police Department, the Stoneham Police Department, and the Eliot, Maine Police Department—have big prohibitionist boners for a new menace. And this foe, unlike illicit cannabis before legalization, prosecutors can calculate tax losses for.

In this case, the “alleged tax evasion resulted in a calculated tax loss of up to $4.8 million to the Commonwealth.”

And we all know what happens when you fail to pay the tax man.

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